The Bialosky Case

On Copying Facts, or Is Boilerplate Writing?

Award-winning poet and Norton editor Jill Bialosky (2017) published Poetry Will Save Your Life, an anthology-as-memoir. In his Tourniquet Review sharp critique of the book, William Logan (2017) also alleged passages had been plagiarized. Unlike with the Gorsuch and Crowley cases, Bialosky's charge of plagiarism failed to garner massive media attention. The case circulated mostly through online and print publications.

My search parameters yielded texts from The New York Times and online publication Forward. The Times reported on the initial charge along with Bialosky's statement in response. The Times also published an open letter supporting Bialosky, signed by 72 prominent literary figures. In Forward Talya Zax (2017a, 2017b) rebutted Bialosky's statement and the open letter with two critical essays, challenging the implicit writing beliefs.

Despite limited media attention, this case serves as a useful example for classroom discussions of plagiarism and its multiple assumptions about writing and authorship. For example, Zax called attention to the work inherent in writing “boilerplate” and argued insider status should not excuse one from repercussion. Bialosky and her supporters emphasize writing as a rigorous process, but they also minimize the importance of citing tertiary sources.

"William Logan has extracted a few ancillary and limited phrases from my 222-page memoir that inadvertently include fragments of prior common biographical sources and tropes after a multiyear writing process."
—Jill Bialosky (Salam & Stevens, 2017)

"The facts that Bialosky re-stated may or may not be common knowledge. The phrases she used to do so were specific to their original writer, even if that writer’s work was published without attribution."
—Talya Zax, 2017

Coding Results

The debate between Zax and Bialosky’s camp first turn on questions of intent and, by extension, character. This class of arguments was most common, at 24.7% of total words. Bialosky defended herself by arguing that any copying was "inadvertent," implying that plagiarism requires a willful action and denying she committed such an act. Bialosky's statement instead emphasized her effort, describing a "multiyear writing process" to both explain how such mistakes could happen and demonstrate a commitment to her writing project. Similarly, Bialosky's statement stressed that the memoir arose from Bialosky's own experience, something by definition difficult to plagiarize. Yet Zak also turned to biographical details to question Bialosky's defense and her overall character. Zak provided plagiarism policies from three universities Bialosky attended, arguing as a student and teacher Bialosky should have been well aware that her work, by any academic definition, included plagiarized passages. But this is not the only contentious point. This case invoked all six theories, with the oppositional pair of expression and ideas in almost perfect balance.

Figure 1: Bialosky Case depicts a pie chart representing the prevelence of themes within five articles surrounding the Bialosky case: character was prominent within 24.7% of the Bialosky corpus; situated was prominent within 23.8% of the Bialosky corpus; universal was prominent within 15.6% of the Bialosky corpus; work was prominent within 14.4% of the Bialosky corpus; ideas were prominent within 10.9% of the Bialosky corpus; and expression was promient within 10.6%.of the Bialosky corpus.

Zax's challenge also sheds light on the way Bialosky's supports rely on an argument from the situated nature of writing. The open letter actively positioned its 72 authors as experts and insiders who can best define what constitutes serious infractions (i.e. “We, as writers and friends of literature”). The idea of situation establishing citation norms was the second most common argument; at 23.8%, it is as present as character claims. Zax counters this view by arguing that writing holds some universal standards, which should apply to all: "A student can fail or be kicked out of a class, [...] I’m a writer at the start of my career; in an unofficial survey, my editors said that if they were shown evidence I’d plagiarized to a similar extent they would likely fire me" (2017a). In this way Zax echoed lines of argument in Writing Studies that see uneven standards applied to student and professional writers: “readers commonly accept as legitimate in the writing of their peers and superiors practices they condemn as plagiarism in the writing of those they view as subordinates” concluded Bruce Horner (2008). The clashing claims expose a tension within the field of Writing Studies. Both the situated nature of writing and that writing requires expertise are central tenets, yet so too, is a concern for fair treatment of all writers. The Bialosky case demonstrates a public, rather than academic, example of how the situated theory can allow insider groups to set themselves up as judge and jury, handing down decisions that look hypocritical to those that hold writing has some universal principles.

Bialosky and Zak also clashed over a more fundamental definition: what counts as writing. When defending the memoir, both Bialosky and the letter of support emphasized the writing means ideas view, by defining the copied text as “biographical boilerplate” (Hahn & Baker, 2017) and “common biographical sources and tropes” (Salam & Stevens, 2017). Bialosky supporters maintained copying "boilerplate" prose is a venal sin at worst. Bialosky’s own statement suggested such prose lacks original ideas and therefore does not fully count as writing. The statement contrasts “fragments of prior common biographical sources and tropes” with “the thesis of this book, which derives from my own life,” a description implying it contains original ideas (Salam & Stevens, 2017). Such arguments make sense only when readers will dismiss boilerplate and other such forms of writing as unworthy of citation. Zax challenged this view, arguing all writing requires an author, and those laboring to produce tertiary sources deserve credit and material compensation.

Zax acknowledged some Bialosky defenders reacted to the gender dynamics within the controversy: “Logan’s review of “Poetry Will Save Your Life” unquestionably employs sexist tropes, most egregiously in his comment that Bialosky’s ‘naive tone has rarely been heard in such gosh–geewillikers purity since Shirley Temple hung up her taps.’” And Logan enjoys a reputation as an unusually harsh critic (McHenry, 2002; Waterman, 2010). Zak noted, however, that the plagiarism charges are grounded not in sexist metaphors but in eight passages compared to the allegedly plagiarized source.

Circulating Theories of Writing

Writing is Situated sees discourse communities as setting citation norms; insiders and plagiarizers judge best; professional standing refutes plagiarism.

Writing Requires Work assumes all writing requires intellectual labor (Roach, 2017) and so all writing deserves source-crediting; the writing process is difficult.

Writing Means Ideas takes up the solitary genius definition of writing, where novel ideas and original arguments matter and boilerplate language or facts do not.

Some of Writing is Universal argues some writing principles, e.g., giving credit, apply to all situations; college teaching and plagiarism policies serve as general benchmarks.

Writing Reflects Character views the act of writing as inherently ethical; intention matters, and writing decisions reflect one's overall character.

Writing Means Expression all work is intertextual, so the form and language used to convey ideas is what matters; reworking ideas is fair use.